Contributor Rodney Stark’s Personal Page


What does worldview have to do with the Spanish Inquisition (~1478 – 1700)?

Most would agree that people hold important beliefs, and that our beliefs largely influence what we do. Beliefs about the past influence how we see the present and approach various issues and problems together. 

Eventually, belief-directed behavior reacts with reality in a feedback loop (the praxis idea); then, over time, belief and reality usually refine or even completely alter each other. Furthermore, it’s frequently with hindsight that we see our beliefs have often involved serious bias or error that prevented us from seeing, much less implementing, optimal strategies.

In other words, we rarely have important successes or mistakes in life without preexisting beliefs that lead us down a certain pathway, and if we don’t learn from them and adjust, at some point, we most certainly should declare ourselves (now, pause and take a deep breath) . . . stupid.

Paraphrasing St. Paul: “I do not do what I want but what I hate” and Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

Ignorance of facts is one thing, but stupidity quite another. And with so much craziness out there in America today, we at Praxis Circle are not ready to slam the door on ourselves and throw away the key, not just yet.

A coal miner’s daughter: “I may be ignorant, but I ain’t stupid.”

OK then, let’s move on.

(Qualification before doing so: For the purposes of discussion in this and the next post, Part II of II, we’ll put aside, yet again, for later the important issues of desire – a truly delicious word, genetics, the passions, the will, and the subconscious—except as the latter is referred to briefly below.)

To answer the question presented above as succinctly as possible: We’d like to use Dr. Stark’s terrific example of narrative bias concerning the Spanish Inquisition to demonstrate how human belief functions to determine worldview, and particularly how beliefs shape narratives and/or ideologies often driving them. We also hope you’ll see a bit more clearly by the end of this post how “culture wars” have seeped well into the historical narratives being downloaded out there, even pre-modern and long forgotten ones, and how deeply relevant these not-so-boring stories remain.


About Sociologist Rodney Stark


But first, please welcome our Praxis Circle Expert Contributor, Dr. Rodney Stark, one of the most notable sociologists in America today. He is a distinguished professor of social sciences and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and an honorary professor at Peking University in Beijing.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Dr. Stark has focused on studying world religions and religious behavior over the entire course of human history. Consequently, Dr. Stark is not only a sociologist, but a close student of history, anthropology, archaeology, politics, economics, psychology, literature, theology, philosophy; in fact, all of the social sciences.

Indeed, it’s hard to see how he can bring all of the information of social science together into such coherent presentations and narratives.

In any case, what he’s probably most famous for is basic arithmetic!

(Multiplication in series, to be specific, known as compound growth rates.)

You see, Dr. Stark was the first to show through mathematics and supporting analysis how Christianity’s “miracle” growth occurred in ways that make perfect sense (though still amazing and unprecedented in history) from an estimated 1,000 people in 40 A.D. to over 30 million by 350 A.D., converting the Roman Emperor Constantine (312 A.D.) and half the Roman Empire in the process.

Such a phenomenon had never happened before (that we know of), and it hasn’t happened since in the same way.

Dr. Stark has written dozens of books and articles, but the game changer was The Rise of Christianity (1999) that explained the Christian statistical miracle from a sociologist’s perspective, a book that’s been well-supported in the field since. The basic math he researched and utilized made insurance actuaries glow with pride, as did his presentation of the stories of heroic early Christians and thousands-to-millions of family members and friends who helped and encouraged each other along the way.

We have no hesitation in saying that, if you’re a lover of Western history, reading Dr. Stark will offer a lifetime of enlightenment and fun from one who relishes telling the straight-up truth, as best as he can tell it, no matter how not-PC (politically correct) such truth turns out to be.


Classifying Belief


To continue with our discussion concerning worldview and belief, please note the schematic below taken from An Introduction to Christian Worldview (2017): 

We’ve already suggested in a prior post that our beliefs can be broken down into Core, Negotiable, and Periphery beliefs, with one’s core beliefs being most fundamental and hardest to change.

For example, a theist and an atheist might agree on the Core beliefs that humans need food and water to live, but disagree on the Core beliefs concerning the existences of natural and supernatural worlds. In contrast, their beliefs concerning the meaning of life or the prospects of balancing the federal budget might be Negotiable, while their belief in Martians might be Peripheral.

Of course, the beliefs we humans entertain are limitless, but most can fit into one of these three categories. Moreover, their position on the map of concentric circles will often change over time, depending on continued experience or additional knowledge.

The next schematic shows another way to classify beliefs:

This diagram functions as an X/Y axis producing quadrants on which all beliefs can be plotted. It’s taken from James W. Sire’s Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? (1994).

The theist and atheist’s belief in the necessity for food and water would go up high in the middle of the Specific and Certain quadrant, while their positions on the existence of natural and supernatural worlds might show up in different quadrants altogether, depending on the specific belief itself, the person, and his/her knowledge or experience.

As far as the federal deficit or the existence of Martians, who knows the answers except maybe God and Elon Musk (and some engineering fans believe they’re the same)? We guess that any miracle from God or Mr. Musk would probably go in the Doubtful or “anything’s possible” category. (FYI, we at PC do believe in divine and human miracles, as defined, as do some but not all of our Contributors.)

The question arises whether a third axis, Z, could be added to create a 3-D model with Conscious to Subconscious functioning as the diagram’s third pole, recognizing that an extreme “Subconscious belief” might be a contradiction in terms.

But how would that be different from an extremely Vague or Doubtful belief? And what is the “subconscious,” anyway?

We must move on again, but you can see how difficult though important reason and definitions can be. Certainly, the subconscious and sex were at the heart of Sigmund Freud’s worldview, and what self-respecting, pleasure-seeking person (and that would be all of us) could disagree with the good Viennese doctor on this one?


Putting our Specific and Certain Beliefs to the Historical Test


Having introduced two granular and complementary ways to think about belief, we return now to Dr. Stark’s clip that addresses the nature of the Spanish Inquisition, which is usually portrayed as a horrendous, depraved, religiously inspired murder-fest.

What devils those Inquisitors!

Perhaps you’re a naturalist (core belief) who is certain that religion is superstitious nonsense (core belief), always trending to mass murder in the long run (negotiable belief), as occurred in the Spanish Inquisition (core belief), with many other examples too numerous to mention. We will call you Sam. Such beliefs might also fall solidly in the Specific and Certain quadrant.

Or perhaps you’re a devoted Christian who believes that Jesus was born, died, and noticeably raised from the dead (core belief) before leaving this world, and that the West through Christianity was blessed to have moved largely away from the evils of the many Inquisitions across Europe (core belief) and those evil Inquisitors! – heresy hunting, Satanism persecution, witch trials, and mass imprisonment, torture, and murder – largely due to progressing interpretations of Christian doctrine since the Inquisition itself (negotiable belief). We will call you Sasha. Such beliefs might also fall mostly in the Specific and Certain quadrant.

We will suggest that that both Sam and Sasha have been poorly educated and beaten back in today’s militantly secularized American public square into the Specific and Certain quadrant, where now dominant culture-speak portrays the Spanish Inquisition as a purely evil thing.

In other words, the Sam/Sasha situation seems similar to the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the peasant, who’s just sworn the witch on trial had “turned me into a newt!”, says, after the mob he’s a part of turns from the witch unexpectedly on him:

“I got better.”

(It’s damn funny! :))

Yes, murderous monotheism did “get better” as it secularized, and, as described above, Sasha’s simply pleading in the public square before us, the mob, that Christianity finally got a grip on itself, thanks be to secular goodness.

But is this what really happened?

The primary issue of this post then becomes: How would the positions of Sam the naturalist and Sasha the Christian change, given Dr. Stark’s statement in the above video that the Inquisition was about “justice, reason, and tolerance” and that it prevented witchcraft charges in Spain and Italy and helped in general to bring Europe into modernity, if that statement proved accurate?

For the purpose of analysis, let’s assume Dr. Stark is correct.

While we at PC admittedly don’t have sufficient independent knowledge to support or deny Dr. Stark’s assessment of the Inquisition, we can say that his extremely detailed treatment in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (2003) and The Triumph of Christianity (2011) are convincing, not only with apparent facts (difficult to verify without access to and review of primary sources), but also with the vital historical perspective he provides.

One certainly cannot make any value judgments about history today concerning events approximately 400 years ago without good facts and good perspective. We might all agree on this.

As such, there’s little doubt that belief in the powers of darkness was pervasive worldwide up through the 17th Century, even in the minds of the best-educated (like Isaac Newton), and capital punishment was common for very minor crimes.

People were either more ignorant, mean, or just plain tougher with fewer resources then?

A reasonable assumption might be that those in power considered a deterrence strategy absolutely necessary, with capital punishment getting results as a stop-gap measure, absent sufficient “first responders,” dungeons, hospitals, and the wealth necessary to fund it all. We know rulers all over the world prior to modernity chose law abiders over law breakers in a rather “binary” way.

In any case, we certainly shouldn’t judge beyond a certain point based on knowledge or perspectives we have today that wouldn’t have made sense or simply weren’t available then.

So, while we “pirates” here at PC still find it tough to acknowledge “The Inquisition was good” (or that Theodoric of York’s, the Medieval Barber’s blood-letting was effective), even knowing as Dr. Stark often points out—that bloodletting and magic in general always works some of the time—we do recognize that history is a critical narrative influencing individual and national worldview.

Historical narrative should be and can be based on facts and proper historical perspective.

(And, yes, we’re suggesting yet again there might be such a thing as truth, and that historical narrative should be based on truth, when identifiable. Shoot, even Michel Foucault, the alleged Dr. Evil of Truth of recent times, one of the genuine philosophical “bad boys,” if you do believe in morality, used historical genealogies or histories to make many of his key points in trying to overturn Truth.)

Dr. Stark points out in his many books written over the last 20 years where such narrative imbalance today has influenced our politically correct, Western historical narrative.

Finally, we can assure you that a historical narrative war is raging in America (just below the obvious political war) between the Christian-sympathetic majority and a more secular but highly powerful humanist minority in the Academy and media over how to tell and characterize Western history and over who should get credit for the amazing advances made in the West and elsewhere globally (those advances being since approximately 1800).

And we at PC are closely following this war and will be reporting on it to you!

Also, please know Dr. Stark’s full interview is available here. He offers comments that will vary widely from what you’ve learned in school, especially in school over the last 40 years, just like his comments on the Inquisition featured above: namely, the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment.

Like all of our PC Contributors, Dr. Stark likes to keep people thinking.




Next time, we’ll conclude our short examination of the nature of belief with some words from a professional who spent his career serving “regular people” suggesting why many do believe in God and why many don’t, and we’ll also offer an inspirational story about why it’s important to believe something, but not just anything.

And one last note: Happy Thanksgiving!!

PS – If you really want to know how to explain human religious behavior, read Dr. Stark’s most recent book, Why God?: Explaining Religious Phenomena (2017). It offers his wisdom developed over a long professional career in a clear, direct fashion concerning how to make sense of religion in history and of what’s going on today.

A key theme: “regular people” (like  many of our Praxis Circle Contributors) are quite rational about their religious choices, just as they try to be with important decisions most of the time. As Dr. Stark makes clear, this was true in 1379 B.C., when the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten created the world’s first known monotheism, just as it is today.

Why Godought to be required reading for leaders of religious organizations everywhere. By the end of this terrific and short book, you’ll know much more about modern events involving so-called and self-described “enlightened” people that will make the worst crimes of any “Inquisition” look like Sesame Street.

While you won’t emerge from Dr. Stark’s book with all the answers and your problems solved (sociology can’t do that), you will have a much better view of the playing field and rules of the human “game” most play in America today called religion.